Thursday, December 29, 2016

builds strong bones and teeth

While reading a book of Dylan Thomas' letters, I came across one from 1951 or so, written to Marguerite Caetani, publisher of the Italian literary journal Bottega Oscura. Thomas is, as usual, begging for money, offering Caetani the first rights to a "play for voices" called, provisionally, "Llareggub", which is obviously a fake Welsh place name and also "bugger all" spelled backwards. Thomas offered the as-yet-incomplete play to Caetani for £100. I'm not sure he got the money, and I am sure the play actually went to the BBC rather than to Italy. That is not the point. The point is that Thomas describes the play to Caetani in a long breathless and inspired paragraph, clearly in love with the idea and possibly making some of it up in the heat of the moment. The description of the play in Thomas' begging letter made me want to not only read Llareggub, but to write my own version of it. Yes, I said, that's a grand idea, a sort of "Our Town" influenced by Proust's ideas of memory and Joyce's ideas of character and language and the further influence of whatever American writers have seeped into my bones, with no doubt a larding of Shakespeare for good measure. I feel that I could do something with those ideas, that there are many possibilities to be discovered within the work. By now I've read the first part of "Under Milk Wood" (the name Thomas eventually settled on for the play) and it seems pretty terrific. I see that a couple of films have been made of it. I am particularly interested in the first version, with Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, and Elizabeth Taylor. Why would I not be? I digress.

Anyway, this is an attractive idea despite the fact that it's highly unoriginal of me. I would of course not write a play; the novel seems to be the form that's chosen me. And I've sworn off writing novels after I complete the current work in progress. And yet. It is an attractive idea that looks interesting in all the right ways. I know a small town on the Colorado plains that I could take as a model. Of course "Under Milk Wood" is quite well known (there's a statue of Captain Cat in Swansea) and I'm like a man in a rowboat washing ashore on Coney Island and thinking he's discovered the New World, despite the millions of people already living in Brooklyn.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Books read, etc., 2016 edition

No messing around in 2016; here's the list:

Stendahl The Red and the Black
Robert F. Scott Antarctic Diary
Michael Smith Tom Crean: Unsung Hero
Eliot Bliss Saraband
Anton Chekhov The Bishop and Other Stories
Arthur Conan Doyle His Last Bow
JRR Tolkien "Leaf By Niggle"
JRR Tolkien "Farmer Giles of Ham"
William Shakespeare "Troilus and Cressida"
Gertrude Stein Paris France
Kaethe Recheis Lena: Unser Dorf in der Krieg
Ursula K. Le Guin A Wizard of Earthsea
Ursula K. Le Guin The Tombs of Atuan
Ursula K. Le Guin The Farthest Shore
E. B. White Here is New York
Max Frisch Homo faber: ein Bericht
Juan Rulfo Pedro Páramo
Anton Chekhov The Party and Other Stories
Francis Beaumont "The Knight of the Burning Pestle"
Magda Szabó The Door
Anton Chekhov The Story of a Nobody
Richard Henry Dana Two Years Before the Mast
Robert Louis Stevenson Treasure Island
George Orwell Down and Out in Paris and London
H.W. Tilman Mischief Goes South
Thomas More Utopia
Abraham Lincoln Selected Speeches and Writings
Anton Chekhov "Three Years"
H.W. Tilman Mischief in Patagonia
Ernest G. Draper Lectures in Navigation
Agatha Christie Cat Among the Pigeons
William Faulkner Selected Short Stories
Kino: The Poetry of Nikola Vaptsarov
Gertrude Stein The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
Frank Kermode The Classic
Georgi Gospodinov The Physics of Sorrow
Roland Barthes Mythologies
Anton Chekhov Selected Stories (P&V, trans.)
Arthur Rimbaud A Season in Hell
Leopoldo Alas La Regenta
Anton Chekhov The Prank
Nathanael West Miss Lonelyhearts
Apsley Cherry-Garrard The Worst Journey in the World
T.H. White The Once and Future King
John Williams Stoner
Sigmund Freud Civilization and its Discontents
Isak Dinesen Seven Gothic Tales
Marcel Proust Swann's Way
Beowulf (Burton Raffel, trans.)
Charlotte Smith Elegiac Sonnets and Other Poems
John Ruskin The Crown of Wild Olive
Charlotte Smith "The Emigrants"
Georgi Gospodinov Kleines morgendliches Verbrechen
Georges Bataille The Blue of Noon
Charlotte Smith Beachy Head & other poems
Marcel Proust Within a Budding Grove
Simon McCartney The Bond
The Epic of Gilgamesh
Chase, Nickerson, et al. The Loss of the Ship Essex, Sunk by a Whale
Selected Letters of Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas "Under Milk Wood"

No rhyme or reason to my reading this year, though there was a lot of interest in Antarctica and sailing ships. And in long books: I am currently 2 1/2 volumes into Marcel Proust's Remembrances of Times Past or whatever you wish to call it, and by now it feels less like reading a novel than like meeting an acquaintance for lunch almost every day to hear him reminisce about his life. Which is a fine thing. It continues to be a good book, each volume better than the last.

I didn't read nearly as much poetry or Shakespeare as I wanted to this year, and I find myself re-reading more these days, making less room for things as-yet unread. I have observed that this is a natural pattern in aging readers, so I think I'm on schedule. The half-remembered classics of my youth have been getting my attention, which explains Beowulf and The Once and Future King. Next year I might read Mallory and The Long Ships, both new to me but logical steps from the immediately-aforementioned books. Perhaps next year I'll stop using so many hyphenated words, too.

I'm not sure if I'll continue reading the letters of dead writers. The Dylan Thomas book I've about finished is quite frustrating: one wants to reach back in time and give the little Welsh brat a good wallop.

More successful, for me as a reader, was the collection of speeches and letters from Abraham Lincoln. I picked it up in March, I believe, at the gift shop inside the Lincoln Memorial. Certainly I have my opinions about some of the possibly unconstitutional actions of Lincoln during his administration, but I feel much more kindly toward old Abraham than I used to do. Him being a yankee and all. Eye-opening, funny, moving, etc. Way better than what I imagine Eat, Pray, Love to be like.

Also in nonfiction, I enjoyed Simon McCartney's The Bond. It is the memoir of a retired elite mountain climber who valued friendship over personal glory. You don't find much of that in the sporting world, so this story is a refreshing change of tone. The book won the 2016 Jon Whyte Award at the Banff Mountain Book Competition, and also the 2016 Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature. If you want, you can read my short review of it here. I'm all about human decency in late 2016.

Speaking of which, I report that as I sit typing this post, I have not quite finished drafting the novel I began this year, a thing called Nowhere But North that's part creation myth, part Henry James romance, and part Melville. Possibly the only novel I have written that I will claim is an actual work of art. Clearly unpublishable, but hopefully in early 2017 I'll finish the first draft and then set the book aside while I revise the novel I wrote last year (was it last year?), a Bildungsroman in stories, letters, and a stageplay, called Antosha! I hope to flog that novel to agents and publishers sometime in mid-2017. Fingers crossed, etc. Antosha! might be less unpublishable than other books of mine.

This year I shopped around a novel called Mona in the Desert, a beautiful novel about family, divorce, memory, and literary criticism. It's still with a couple of small presses for consideration, so we'll see. In a world where carpenters get resurrected, etc. I also sent out an older novel, Go Home, Miss America, to a few select publishers. At least one of them is actually reading the MS, so who can say what will happen?

For no real reason I mention that I'm working on Vittorio Monti's little salon piece Csardas, an exciting bit of fluff that is nowhere as difficult as it looks, and Wolfgang Mozart's lovely violin concerto in G major, which is much more difficult than it looks, like every bit of Mozart's music. The violin is a very satisfying hobby; every technical solution is also an artistic solution, much the way it is with writing fiction.

Next year: Shakespeare's "history" plays! More poetry! More German-language fiction! More Chekhov again! More obscure 20th-century English women! More Proust! More Euripides! No Antarctic nonfiction! No age-of-sail books! More Bulgakov! Dumas! Woolf! Hugo! Murdoch! Goethe! Boll! et innumerabilis alios!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

in a single room, in three acts without denouement

I have noticed lately that the novels I write generally involve travel, and a great deal of it. I seem to somehow have gotten stuck in the habit of writing literal journeys:
  • The Jack of Hearts Remembers Me is a classic American road trip taken by a pair of evangelists (one of whom is mad, and the other might be imaginary).
  • The Astrologer is a voyage-within-a-voyage, as plucky Soren Andersmann sails off to the island of Hven during a royal trip to Kronberg castle in Elsinore.
  • Cocke & Bull's protagonists flee from Joppa, Maryland to the Great Dismal Swamp in the Carolinas, trekking through the Cumberland along the way. And then back to Joppa.
  • The Transcendental Detective is an episode during Patience Quince's peregrinations in America while avoiding her lover, whom Patience has left behind in Algiers.
  • Go Home, Miss America involves travel from Seattle, Washington to the Democratic Republic of Congo. There is also a lot of movement within Seattle, much wandering around the city.
  • The Hanging Man is yet another episode of Patience Quince in America, this time a side quest while her train is delayed by dust storms in Kansas. There's some good stuff about trains, and a lot of walking around. Also someone is pursued by a bear, as the bear is itself pursued.
  • Mona in the Desert tells of two parallel pilgrimages to Albuquerque, New Mexico: one in 1950, the other sometime vaguely in the 1990s.
  • Antosha! drags its characters all over Mother Russia and then to Italy, Switzerland, Bohemia, and America.
  • Nowhere But North is a long voyage from Manhattan to the South Pole. A wide variety of vehicles are involved.
I'm not sure what this says about me, but one thing I do not do is write stories of people sitting quietly while they muse about life or whatever. I seem to create odysseys, or at least the sort of noisy ramshackle flying about that one finds in Dostoyevsky.

Certainly the voyage, the hero's journey thing, is a useful framework (thematically/metaphorically and narrative-structure-wise) for a large scale work of fiction, and certainly the idea of motion is natural enough to this writer, who has had uncountable addresses over the decades. Still, I find it curious and possibly alarming (and no doubt very telling to someone--not me--with the appropriate amount of critical distance) that there is so much moving around in everything I write. I just thought of the two most recent short stories I wrote, and both of them involve a character walking along a city street having strange encounters.

Perhaps this is all because I have a fantasy of home being a place where nothing happens, where there are no adventures, where all is stable and at peace. My characters are none of them at home because they are none of them at peace, so I cannot allow them to remain at rest. Home is not an option for my poor protagonists, or at best it is very remote. Perhaps I have a secret wish to be one of the stodgier residents of Hobbiton.

I've just remembered that this is the sort of cursory analysis of my writing that I do when I'm wrapping up a first draft. I am, you see, close to the end of the first draft of my Antarctica novel, and as usual I'm wondering what I think I'm doing, writing all of these novels, wondering again if I keep writing the same story again and again, dressing up the same small set of characters in different costumes and sending them off on the same journey but having repainted the canvas backdrops and shuffled the props. Maybe. I don't know. I would like my next novel, should there be one, to be the tale of someone or someones who manifestly refuse to leave home. Like a Beckett story, maybe, all taking place in a single room.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Three Things/Free Things

First: I am always gladdened when Dr Miriam Burstein mentions my novel The Astrologer on her blog. My gratitude to Dr Burstein for teaching my book is eternal. Her year in books post today lists The Astrologer as "Novel with which my students had the most fun." Fun, you see? Fun. Color me pleased, and go read the post because the whole list is entertaining and informative.

Second: Speaking of fun novels, I have decided to give away digital copies of a book I wrote a few years ago, called The Transcendental Detective. It features an eccentric detective in the grand tradition of eccentric detectives, with the difference that Patience Quince scoffs at the idea of evidence. As I've said here before, The Transcendental Detective is not really a detective story so much as it's a collection of Chekhovian character sketches through which a tipsy police officer wanders in search of a murderer. Click the appropriate blue link above (you can find it, I know you can) and download a PDF. It is free because I love you, whoever you are.

Third: Just at lunch today, I finished the first draft of the third long section of the current novel-in-progress Nowhere But North. I've so far written about 90,000 words of this book, and I have another 5-10K words to go, introductory and connective scenes that tie the big sections together. Hopefully I'll be done with that business by the end of the year. I offer no links nor free anything related to this third item.